Born in Brooklyn, New York on 14 July 1917, the son of a Jewish lawyer and a teacher, Laurents studied at Cornell University and started his career writing for radio. His first Broadway credit Home of the Brave, his play about anti-semitism in the military, came in 1945 and was followed in the 1950s by three more plays, The Bird Cage, The Time of the Cuckoo and A Clearing in the Woods.
Laurents’ musical breakthrough came in 1957 when he wrote the book for West Side Story, which relocated the star-crossed love story of Romeo and Juliet to gangland New York City, where Tony and Puerto Rican Maria are caught in the crossfire. Conceived, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, it had a score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Two years later, Laurents reunited with Sondheim as lyricist and Robbins as director/choreographer on Gypsy, which was based on the memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee and provided a star vehicle for Ethel Merman as the ultimate domineering stage mother, Rose. West Side Story and Gypsy were made into films back to back in 1961 and 1962, both starring Natalie Wood.
Laurents’ other book credits included Anyone Can Whistle, Do I Hear a Waltz, Hallelujah, Baby!, The Madwoman of Central Park West and Nick & Nora, while he also assumed directing duties on productions including Anyone Can Whistle, Invitation to a March, La Cage aux Folles, Madwoman of Central Park West and Nick & Nora, as well as revivals of Gypsy and West Side Story. He tackled the last two most recently on Broadway in, respectively, 2008 (with Patti LuPone) and 2009, the latter as a bilingual production, with some dialogue and lyrics in Spanish.
During his career, Laurents won two Tony Awards, though not for his two most famous Broadway contributions, Gypsy and West Side Story, both of which also missed out on Best Musical Tony gongs when they premiered. Instead, Laurents’ wins came for Hallelujah, Baby! (Best Musical in 1968) and Best Direction of a Musical for La Cage aux Folles in 1984.
Though his Hollywood forays were less frequent, Laurents also mounted up impressive screenwriting credits, including for the Oscar nominated The Snake Pit, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and The Way We Were, starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford.